Winter backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park

A weekend where I again assisted with a winter backpacking course.

Winter backpacking is, at first glance, not really that different from three-season backpacking.  You still need your usual backpacking gear: a shelter, stove, sleeping bag, clothing, sleeping pad and so on. Food is still cooked, hot drinks are still poured and routes are planned out on a map.

Except that the gear is heavier and bulkier. Tasks take longer. Being warm and dry takes a little more proper planning and work. Hydration seems a little more difficult. And you may even need extra equipment in the form of skis or snowshoes.

Winter backpacking is rewarding…but it does need a little bit of extra planning, requires more attention to detail and the right mental attitude.

With all that in mind, I again assisted on a winter backpacking fundamentals weekend with Andrew Skurka. A great way to kick-start and gain skills in deep winter backpacking. A chance to learn how to stay warm, dry and be comfortable, understand and use some basics of Nordic backcountry skiing and to enjoy the beauty that is winter.

The chosen destination was again Rocky Mountain National Park. Due to the weather forecast and Sunday ski traffic, we decided to have the trip on the eastern side of the park. Logistically easier, if more challenging skiing.

We all met at a local coffee shop in Estes Park, CO and drove to the trailhead in RMNP..

We suited up, put on our puffies and gave some instruction on various parts of winter travel. My contribution was explaining the different types of skis, boots, bindings and their various trade-offs. I also gave a quick run through on climbing skins, ski waxes and waxless (fishscale) skis and their various pros and cons as well.

Note: Any photos without a watermark from me are courtesy of Andrew Skurka. For various reasons, I was not taking as many photos.

In the parking lot, we planned out the route and went over logistics.

Though a few people were new to Nordic backcountry skiing, everyone started to get the hang of it while enjoying the winter landscape.

But there are always a few hiccups when it comes to backcountry travel, esp when there are ten people. Bindings became a little loose or even frozen, rental gear needed some adjustment , the unfamiliar way of moving on skis made some people more tired than expected and the snow conditions at the lower elevations (about 8500′ +/-) were a bit gloppy.  The repair kit I had was broken out a few times and was a nice segueway into a talk on why a backcountry repair kit is taken in winter! :)

We soon arrived at a nice, sheltered place for camp. Shelters were pitched, a cooking area was made and we settled down in for the evening.

After a very relaxing night’s sleep we broke camp and started to get ready for the upcoming day.

Before heading out, we did a talk on snow pack, types of snow and what it all means for skiing, setting up camp and avoiding avalanches.

We then headed out for some more touring in the Colorado Rockies winter landscape.

Unusual for a winter backpacking trip, Andrew and I decided to have the group  head back to the cars and move our route elsewhere. We felt that a little higher up would have better snow and trail conditions.

We skied back to the cars, re-tooled a little bit for those having equipment issues and headed to Bear Lake at ~9500′.

Though a busy trail head, most people were headed out for the day. Once past the first half-mile, the trails become deserted.

The decision to move the trip to a different area proved to be a wise one. People struggling during the day with skis enjoyed the forgiving downhill with its ample powder, great conditions and good snow. There were smiles ear-to-ear. People had discovered the magic. They were now worshipping in the temple of snow.

After our ski down, we made again made camp in a sheltered and quiet spot.

The crew set up their shelters while I built another set of  what i call my Ikea snow furniture. :)

A rounded counter for stoves, a flat shelf on top to serve food and even a pantry of sorts for storage. Not too shabby if I do say so… ;)

The following morning, we packed up, headed out and enjoyed some more skiing. The crew seemed much more comfortable than even two days ago. Sidestepping, herring boning, basic turns and just being comfortable on skis seemed more dialed-in.

After making some laps on a nearby section of downhill trail, we hoisted our packs again and headed back to Bear Lake.

The group was all smiles once we reached the lake. The concept of winter backpacking was no longer something to be intimidated by, but something to enjoy and appreciate.

We took one last MGP (Mandatory Group Photo!) at Bear Lake.

The entire crew….

The cars were reached, we headed back to Estes Park and enjoyed a well deserved burger and beer together as a group.

A great trip with wonderful people in good conditions. Not a bad part-time gig… :)

A slide show of the photos…

Other Thoughts

  • The trip will be run again next year. See here for details
  • Though snowshoes have an easier learning curve, people could see why we chose skis instead. Yeah!
  • The eastern side of the park is logistically easier, misses the nightmare of Sunday ski traffic and luckily had decent to good snow overall. However, the western side of the park tends to be more gentle and have better snow. Always a compromise…
  • The trip was not really about mileage or goals per se. It was a chance to learn some basics of both winter backpacking and winter travel on skis. I think everyone who went on the trip thoroughly enjoyed themselves and really appreciated winter. I’d say the trip was a success!
  • I have a whole slew of winter articles if you are interested in more topics concerning winter
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